Tuesday, October 18th, 2011
Iceland Airwaves 2011 Day One
Beach House, Raised Among Wolves, Of Monsters & Men and more at Iceland Airwaves
Frank YangCalling this “day one” of Iceland Airwaves isn’t strictly correct. Though the festival did really start in earnest on the Thursday, there was a fair bit of programming on the Wednesday night and though I was on the fence about leaving the comfort of the apartment late at night, I fell on the side of heading to NASA, one of the festival’s main venues, facing onto Austurvöllur square a couple blocks away.
The attraction were Iceland’s own Of Monsters & Men, whom although a new band – their debut album My Head Is An Animal only came out in September – were clearly already a hot commodity locally as the venue was jammed to the rafters. And watching them perform, it wasn’t hard to understand why; their sound fell somewhere between Arcade Fire and Fanfarlo with not a little Stars to be found in the vocal interplay between Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir and Ragnar Þórhallsson – in other words, eminently likeable. They were neither as dramatic or twee as those reference points might imply, nestled comfortably in the middle, but still big-sounding and making the most of their 10-piece lineup. Normally they numbered six, but this was a special occasion after all and so there were plenty of handclaps, gang vocals and a brief cover of Kool & The Gang’s “Celebrate”. I don’t know that the songs are quite up to the level of the delivery, but they were fun – no question. And word is they’ll be bringing their show to Toronto next month… details will be forthcoming.
Slipping back into travelogue mode for a moment, Thursday saw another attempt to get out of the city and though it was hardly a nice day, the elements didn’t stop us from getting out to Þingvellir national park and Þingvallavatn. On the way, there were stops at Mosfell to check out one of those churches that just pops up out of nowhere and befriend a couple of extraordinarily friendly and pretty Icelandic ponies as well as some stunning fields of volcanic rock. As the park was situated across the continental divide between the North American and European tectonic plates, chasms and cliffs were the norm and landmarks were the thousand year-old, man-made waterfall called Öxaráfoss and the site of the first Icelandic parliament – Alþing – dating back to 930 AD. Yes, it just looked like a mound near a cliff face but still. HISTORY. Flickr has been updated with visuals and oh, on the way back into town, I completely forgot how roundabouts work just for a moment and hit an SUV for some hot Hyundai on Hyundai action. At Icelandic roundabouts, the inner lane has the right of way; that’s one to grow on, kids. While the other car was undamaged, the front end of mine was kind of mashed – but no one was hurt except my Visa card in covering the insurance deductible. Le sigh.
Back in town, we attempted to cheer the home team in seeing Owen Pallett play an afternoon off-venue – the Airwaves name for day shows – but it turned out that our support wasn’t needed; Kaffibarinn was beyond jammed and while I could hear him and Les Mouches, I didn’t lay an eye on them the whole time there. Pallett and company had been in the country for a couple of weeks leading up to the festival recording, and accordingly their set was split between old favourites, albeit somewhat reconfigured to be more keyboard-heavy, and new songs which further imply a synthier direction for the new record. The crush of humanity kept me from staying to the very end and anyways, I had a banged-up car to return.
MP3: Owen Pallett – “A Man With No Ankles”
MP3: Owen Pallett – “Lewis Takes Off His Shirt”
MP3: Final Fantasy – “The Butcher”
MP3: Final Fantasy – “Ultimatum”
Video: Owen Pallett – “The Great Elsewhere”
Video: Owen Pallett – “Lewis Takes Off His Shirt”
Video: Final Fantasy – “Horsetail Feathers”
Video: Final Fantasy – “The Butcher”
Video: Final Fantasy – “He Poos Clouds”
Video: Final Fantasy – “This Lamb Sells Condos”
The evening program began literally two doors down from our apartment – didn’t I mention it was conveniently located? – at the Tjarnarbíó theatre for Danish septet Raised Among Wolves. As you might expect from a band with that many players, they traded in orchestrally-inclined pop not far removed from what Of Monsters & Men were serving up the night before though Wolves were more stereotypically Scandinavian, being more elegantly polished in performance and romantically melancholic in tone. They were also better-dressed, with a decidedly northlander-ish marching band dress code in effect. It doesn’t appear that they’ve got any proper releases yet, but while their catalog is lean their ambitions are extensive – there’s no doubt they’ll be looking to replace those synth patches with a proper orchestra and the toy piano with a full grand. Though they’ll probably still paint their name on the side. Charming and brimming with promise.
By the time I got to the gorgeous Kaldalón room in the Harpa opera house to see Iceland’s Nóra, I was thinking that I’d have to fit some black metal into my itinerary to offset all the orch-pop that was making up my Airwaves experience so far. But I like what I like, I suppose. Cheekily introducing themselves as “celebrated Icelandic rock band Nóra”, the brother-and-sister-led fivesome initially seemed to have some trouble with the clean acoustics of the room, with their vocals turned up considerably louder than their instruments and consequently sounding detached from the music though inviting a three-piece horn section out for a portion of the set helped fill out the mix. Singing in Icelandic and drawing from their debut Er einhver aö hlusta?, they were largely upbeat and peppy though a couple numbers at the end of the set proved they could get tense and angsty when called for and they were sonically ambitious throughout. A reliance on keyboards kept their stage presence rather static, but some dry stage banter helped endear them nonetheless.
Any fears of the festival getting too “all twee, all the time” were stopped dead with Retro Stefson at Listasafn, the Reykjavik Art Museum and another major venue. They were many things – disco, funk, hip-hop, rock, electro – but certainly not twee. And definitely a party. Though there’s something like seven of them in the band, it was hard to pay any attention to anyone besides singer/guitarist Unnsteinn Manuel Stefánsson and percussionist/dancer Haraldur Ari Stefánsson, and not just because the rest of the band was completely obscured in smoke and strobes. The former Stefánsson was more than a little Prince-like with his virtuostic guitar-playing and singing even he seemed restrained compared to the latter Stefánsson’s gyrating, thrusting and audience-invading/crowd-surfing antics. I think it’s safe to say they were one of the strangest lead-in acts that Beach House has ever had.
I don’t think it’s a real slight to say that Beach House aren’t a conventionally great live act. Both Alex Scally and Victoria Legrand are generally content to sit or stand stock still with their instruments and let their hypnotic songs and maybe the light show do the work. In the case of the Listasafn show, billed as one of the festival’s headlining slots and marking the band’s first time in the country, they maybe let the light show get away from them as the combination of blinding backlights and smoke made it so that both were little more than stationary silhouettes for the show. It was frustrating to watch (and photograph) but did work from time to time, most notably for “Norway” when the lights went white and the entire stage lit up in tiny LEDs, presenting Legrand as a disembodied voice in a field of stars. Whatever they looked like, though, they sounded grand with the tinny canned beats segueing into huge live drums and Legrand’s smoky vocals filling the hall along with thousands of Icelanders, dancing and swaying in a giant collective swoon.
Photos: Beach House @ Listasafn – October 13, 2011
MP3: Beach House – “I Do Not Care For The Winter Sun”
MP3: Beach House – “Zebra”
MP3: Beach House – “Norway”
MP3: Beach House – “Gila”
MP3: Beach House – “Heart Of Chamber”
MP3: Beach House – “Master Of None”
Video: Beach House – “Walk In The Park”
Video: Beach House – “Silver Soul”
Video: Beach House – “Used To Be”
Video: Beach House – “You Came To Me”
Video: Beach House – “Heart Of Chambers”
DIY gets to know Amanda Mair, the teenage singer-songwriter who’s the latest addition to the Labrador Records roster. She’s released two singles in advance of a debut album due in late 2011 or more likely early 2012.
Interview and Billboard talk to Anthony Gonzalez of M83 on the occasion of the release of Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming this week. They’ve also just released a new video from said record. Look for them at Lee’s Palace on November 18.
Video: M83 – “Midnight City”
The hour-long Phoenix documentary From A Mess To The Masses is now available to watch in full online.